Rep. Blake Johnson: Cannabis legalization would be an economic win for Indiana

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint
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Across the country, states—including most of our neighbors—have realized the benefits of cannabis legalization, yet Indiana has continued to ignore them, a fact that has us falling far behind in our competition for resources and talent.

The production and sale of cannabis is a big business. Where cannabis has been legalized, states have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, providing additional resources for schools, public health, infrastructure and other critical needs. Lawmakers have a chance to crunch the numbers as we evaluate the economics of cannabis in the Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development. As a member, I implore my fellow legislators to listen to the statistics. It’s time for Indiana to sow the seeds and reap the economic benefits of cannabis.

Legalization would stimulate our economy. A regulated cannabis industry would create jobs, generate tax revenue and expand investment opportunities. Even though the unemployment rate is fairly low, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development estimated that 127,406 Hoosiers still need jobs. Cannabis businesses would open hundreds, if not thousands, of employment opportunities for individuals who need them.

A 2016 study in California estimated that recreational legalization would create 81,000 to 103,000 jobs in the state. These jobs include the construction of nurseries and dispensaries, their operation, product marketing and distribution. A state-regulated industry would invite opportunities in research and development of medical cannabis products, opportunities that would support high-paying jobs in chemistry, agriculture, biology and pharmacy. Without a doubt, legalization would create thousands of jobs for Hoosiers who are battling high inflation and a rising cost of living.

State-regulated cannabis industries bring in massive amounts of tax revenue. In 2022, Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker announced the state generated $445 million in tax revenue from adult-use cannabis—that’s funding Indiana could be using for mental health services, public safety efforts and roads. To make matters hazier, Hoosiers are buying out-of-state cannabis products. In July, Illinois sold $35.6 million worth of product to out-of-state customers. Since cannabis legalization is a state issue, money spent at out-of-state dispensaries is a sunk cost. Essentially, Hoosier money doesn’t flow back into Indiana. That’s millions of dollars Indiana’s economy will never get back.

Statehouse Republicans have repeatedly blocked cannabis legislation. This past session, I authored House Bill 1248 to establish a Cannabis Commission. Like the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, this commission would have regulated the production and sale of adult-use cannabis products. Along with making cannabis legal through a permit, HB 1248 would have imposed state taxes, removed existing felony offenses from state law and changed existing regulations. The bill never made it to the House floor.

Other cannabis legislation proposed in the 2023 session fared the same. Rep. Ryan Hatfield, D-Evansville, co-authored House Bill 1297. Following national trends, this bill would have decriminalized possession of 2 ounces or less of marijuana. It didn’t progress past a committee hearing. In fact, seven bills related to cannabis legalization or decriminalization were proposed this past session. None of them passed from committee hearings to a vote on the assembly floor.

It’s time we pass legislation that decriminalizes cannabis, removes existing felonies and establishes a regulated market. As we study cannabis at the Interim Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, we need to be conscious of the positive economic opportunity. The production value of cannabis proves that legalization would help Hoosiers. Now is the time to vote in the best interest of our communities and catch up to the rest of the nation.•

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Johnson, a Democrat, is a member of the Indiana House representing parts of Indianapolis.

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